“Therefore Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by cultures, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts […]”
Edward Said. Orientalism, 1978.
“[…] it would be more accurate describe Orientalism and Anglicanism not as polar opposites but as points along a continuum of attitudes the manner and form of native governance […]”
Gauri Viswanathan. ‘The Beginning of English Literary Study in British India,’ 1987.
Gauri Viswanathan and Edward Said are both important literary critics in the body of postcolonial academic thought. Both of them write of Orientalism as a stereotyped, colonial attitude towards the Eastern, non-European area (that is, the orient). Viswanathan and Said, who have been colleagues at Columbia University, have been heavily influenced by theories of Michel Foucault. Viswanathan follows the Foucaultian notion of genealogical (family descent) analysis with respect to historical social developments, and not just contexts, which shaped the factors of the introduction of English literary education as fields for study in India, in her essay ‘The Beginning of English Literary Study in British India’ (1987). Said on the other hand uses the concept of ‘Discourse’ which is a body of thought and writing united by having a common object of study, a common methodology, and/or a set of common terms and ideas in his text Orientalism (1978). They are both influenced by Gramsci and his notion of hegemony, and belong to the same discourse or body of thought as they talk about a wide variety of texts, from different countries, historical periods and disciplines to relate or group them into a single entity.
In the passages quoted above, we can see the distinct definitions the literary critics put forward for the concept of Orientalism, which they both deal with at length in their work. Said talks in the quoted lines about what the concept is not about: he posits that it is not only a political issue for institutions to superficially deal with, and it is not indicative of a colonial plot to oppress the oriental world. He writes that it is instead a sense of awareness, transferred into texts, which need be aesthetic and yet scholarly, and cover all realms of perspectives including the economic, sociological and philological. For him, it is an attitude based on distinctions drawn between ‘the orient’ and ‘the occident,’ stressing that the French and British have “a way of coming to terms with the orient that is based on the orient’s special place in European Western Experience,” disregarding the validity of the orient’s own experience. This ties in with Viswanathan’s quoted definition in which she asserts that Orientalism is the same as Anglicanism, which she treats as meaning British ideology and society, and the education of these being imparted on the orient as a way to rewrite history. She identifies the Orientalism in academics, pointing out that the system of ideas of the British coloniser are indoctrinated into the colony from a young age, so that their beliefs can be unquestioningly adopted by the orient.
In his work, Said delineates Orientalism further as an ‘other-ing’ of the orient carried out by the occident (that is, the countries of the West), wherein the latter is able to define itself against the stereotyped image of the former. When the orient is characterised by the occident in a particular manner, it is never an innocent or apolitical act, as it is always done in order to set a definitive distinction: the orient is a certain way which the occident is not. This is then taken further to establish the superiority of the occident’s way of life and thought. The orient is repeatedly painted as superstitious and irrational so that the West can highlight their own rationality pitted against ‘blind faith,’ ‘mysticism’ and ‘ignorance’ practiced by the East. This is similar to Viswanathan’s understanding of Orientalism as she writes of education as controlled, limited and propagandised. During the British Raj in India for instance, children in schools were taught that Indian epics had an unjustifiable sense of blind faith associated with them, as they deal with magic and voodoo, and this by extension implies that Western texts are superior, and are shown to be logical, rational texts with empirical evidence backing them, since classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey are written by mortals (that is, Homer, as opposed to the rumours and unquestioning belief believing Lord Ganesh wrote the Mahabharata) and do not have magic occurring in them.
However, this is a deeply problematic teaching as Western theology does rely to a large extent on blind faith, as Christians are expected to believe in ideas such as that of Jesus Christ walking on water and Mary conceiving as a virgin. Yet, the occident propounds their own beliefs and culture as rational and believable, painting an exotic image of the orient. In this way, there is an ideological state apparatus at play (an idea put forward by French Marxist Althusser) in which consensus (or Direzione) and not coercion (or Dominio) is key. Instead of a violent, repressive system alone, systems of thought are changed over time in order to suppress the ‘other’ (the lower classes in the Marxist model and the orient in the post-colonial one Said and Viswanathan are concerned with) so that the particular ideology of the occident becomes the ‘common sense’ culture of all. This is in keeping with Gramsci’s definition of hegemony, which is not simply leadership or dominance of one social group over another for him, but a sort of insidious indoctrination in which the suppressed group (the orient) is unaware of its suppression and accepts the system as justified. This concept is therefore not limited to Marxism alone but can also be applied to imperialism in which the imperialists gain consent to rule those they subjugate. The colonised accept the good of the coloniser as their good and so help maintain the status quo. It is similar to the thought of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in forming an alliance with the peasants – that it was only through making the Bolshevik revolution also a peasants’ revolution, which peasants could see as being their own, that the urban proletariat could maintain its leading position.
An instance of this sort of hegemonised education being imparted is Macaulay’s polemical tract ‘Minute Upon Indian Education’ (1835) in which he advocated for English texts to be taught in India. He endeavoured to impose the English language on the colonised, citing that Sanskrit and Arabic are inadequate. He writes that it is clear
that English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic; that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanskrit or Arabic; that neither as the languages of law, nor as the languages of religion, have the Sanskrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our engagement; that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.
Viswanathan critiques this sort of teaching as she recognises the hegemonist politics at play, aware that a language and culture are irrevocably linked to one’s sense of identity and, without a language, people would lose their sense of self. Further, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, points out how written, spoken, and body-language are all used in harmony to define different cultures. Language conveys a culture’s standards and values, something that can’t be picked up by someone who doesn’t understand the language. When English was imposed into Kenyan culture, textbooks and teachings made the culture appear inferior, as was the case with India. Viswanathan recognises that reducing a culture to certain symbols or sets of symbols is problematic and sees the colonising effects of withholding language from a people, but focuses on the academic aspect alone, while Said takes a broader vision to it.
Further, Gramscian ideas can also be applied similarly to Said’s theory, who writes about how the West has a way of coming to terms with the orient that is based on the orient’s place in European Western Experience, invalidating the orient’s own merit. This attitude can be seen as having been adopted by the orient themselves, in which they do not attribute importance to writers produced from their own land until they gain international recognition. For instance, when Rushdie receives awards on the international platform and is accepted among scholarly circles in New York and London, he is lauded by the Indian community, but prior to that external validation from the West, he is not given as much praise. Tagore, too, is much acclaimed by India only once the occident accepts him, whereas a good writer not recognised abroad is not paid as much heed to. Even all these years after colonisation, India still looks westward for guidance, due to how deeply the ideological state apparatus has been entrenched. Physically, the country may be free of colonisation, but it is much harder to de-colonise minds. Namvar Singh’s essay later ‘Decolonising the Indian Mind’ (1992) deals with this issue of it being more difficult to rid the mind of the lingering effects of colonisation, writing about neo-Orientalism and cultural colonisation of the present age. He belongs to the body of thought that believes India should look to its past to find its identity (without recognising that the perfect, golden past doesn’t exist).
In Said’s work dealing with this, the influence of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s discourses on power relations is evident. Foucault uses “power/knowledge” to illustrate how power is asserted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and truth. In ‘The World, the Text, and the Critic,’ he acknowledges his indebtedness to Foucault for his concept of worldliness, saying “Foucault’s contention is that the fact of writing itself is a systematic conversion of the power relationship between controller and controlled into ’mere’ written words—but writing is a way of disguising the awesome materiality of so tightly controlled and managed a production.” Foucault’s influence is central to Said’s point that no text or author may be viewed apart from social and political circumstances.
Although some critics accuse Said of not being a valid source to write of Orientalism, as a relatively privileged citizen of the US, his contribution to the field is of paramount significance as he has not only contributed largely to post-colonial thought himself, but has also influenced other theorists, including Viswanathan. While her work is more focused on the relationship between India and Britain, as well as the academic aspects of teaching in English, Said’s scope goes broader, and writes of Orientalism at large.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. 1981.
Gramsci, Antonio. The Prison Notebooks. 1971.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. ‘Minute upon Indian Education.’ 1835.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978.
Singh, Namvar. ‘Decolonising the Indian Mind.’ 1992.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o. ‘Decolonising the Mind.’ 1986.
Vega, Martin. ‘The Influence of French Theory on Edward Said’s Concept of Worldliness.’ 2014.